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ATD Blog

How to Prepare Subject Matter Experts to Review Content

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
  • Early on in my instructional design career, I noticed a strange phenomenon. For some subject matter experts (SMEs), the process of reviewing training materials seemed to bring out their inner English teacher. Instead of reviewing the materials to ensure the content was accurate and complete, they reviewed it for minor grammatical issues. Or worse, they forgot they were the SME. 

    For example, rather than clarifying a concept I hadn’t quite nailed, they would write, “Huh?” in the margin. All I could think when I saw this comment, often in red ink, was, “Gosh, I don’t know. Aren’t you the SME?” 

    Of course, the net effect of these non-starter responses was to slow down the instructional design process. I now had to schedule a meeting, or in some cases multiple meetings, to get the information I needed to finalize the content. 

    I even tried scheduling the meeting first so we could review the content together. This wasn’t much better as many busy SMEs didn’t have the prolonged time it took to review the content live with me. Understandably, they wanted to think about their reactions and responses before committing their feedback to be documented for training purposes. 

    Since then, I’ve developed the following email message when sending content to SMEs for review. So far, it has helped me achieve the level of information I need. 

    Hi SME, 

    Thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy day to review the content we’ve been working on for the [name] course. 

    I’ve attached the [outline, notes, case study, slides, etc.] for your review. 


    Will you please take a look and let me know if: 

  • The content is accurate? Did I get everything we spoke about right? Are there any nuances I missed?
  • The content is complete? In retrospect, is there anything we missed during our conversations that you think we should include?
  • The content is essential? Is there any content that is nice for learners to know, but not absolutely essential or important for them to achieve the objective of the course? 

    Please do not worry about grammar. I know that grammatical issues can be distracting. But we will have a professional editor comb through the content once we’ve finalized it. 

    This is the [last] round of revisions. This means that it is essential to catch any issues now so that [company] does not incur additional costs and so that we can continue to stay on schedule. 

    There are two options for providing feedback:

    You can review the content and then we can meet to discuss it.

  • You can review the content and note your feedback with tracked changes and/or comments.

Which would you prefer?

I will need all feedback returned to me by [date].

Thank you, again. And please let me know if you have any questions.

I then follow up with a phone call or a meeting invite to schedule the meeting for joint review. If they prefer to respond with tracked changes, I send out a reminder email a day or so in advance of the due date to ensure that they stay on track with their feedback.

To be honest, SMEs still don’t always make the due date, and quite often there are out-of-scope rounds of revisions. But the feedback I receive is much more substantive in nature. More importantly, very rarely do I see grammar corrections or cryptic notes in the margin.

About the Author

Diane Valenti, founder of Applied Performance Solutions, Inc., uses her instructional design ninja skills to help companies reduce their sales onboarding ramp time and help sales teams rapidly acquire product knowledge. She works with Fortune 500 and startup companies, alike. Get Diane’s checklist to learn if you are making these 10 incredibly common mistakes that slow sales onboarding.

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Thanks for the email template. Very useful. It is really important to clarify the role of the SME from the very beginning.
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Thank you, Diane! This is great insight - particularly as it relates to time constraints. I am often concerned with how many meetings, etc. it can take to confirm the accuracy of one piece of material (thereby creating further delays). Great review!
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